TOTAL RECALL – The Evolution of Memory starts on September 5th. The opening event is “We are here”, a transdisciplinary performance about memory, consciousness, responsibility and surveillance. We have talked to Salvatore Vanasco, one of the initiators of this project and no stranger to Ars Electronica.
“We Are Here” is the opening of TOTAL RECALL – The Evolution of Memory. What’s the story with this?
“We Are Here” is a collective project by artists from different countries, of different backgrounds, with different views and outlooks, who are dealing with the history of totalitarianism and thus considering the parallels between events in the 20th century from the peace treaties at the end of World War I to the impact of the Nazi era, and what’s happing now with the harvesting of data and securities agencies restricting human rights in an increasingly totalitarian way.
We’re attempting to build a bridge in the spirit of commemoration and of refreshing people’s memories, from the battle fields of the 20th century to the battlefields of the 21st century.
So this is a history of censorship, a history of surveillance?
Exactly, those are the ingredients—surveillance, censorship, influencing people’s opinions and what they pay attention to. These are, as a rule, ordered by a national government, or mandated and implemented through bilateral agreements between allies and European countries.
Why are you doing this now?
We have a few anniversaries. For one this, this is the 80th anniversary of the book burnings. Next year is the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of World War I. The fact is that the eyewitnesses to history, members of the generation who went through this, are dying out. For another, we were shocked by opinion polls conducted in Germany last year among so-called digital natives, which revealed that 30% of those surveyed had no idea about Auschwitz, they didn’t associate anything with this name.
As artists, professionals, human beings and citizens, we firmly believe that this generation also has to get actively involved in deciding how this commemoration work is done. We’re not saying: “We have to nip this in the bud!” since that would be like forgetting all that’s gone on before and starting from scratch over and over again. We’re for a transformative social process, for addressing this question in everyday life, in the educational system, so that we can start employing our own ways and means to come to terms with this and, perhaps, come up with a concept for how society might also be.
That means: remembrance as the basis for social development.
There’s the concept of collective memory. This would be interesting, since this collaborative historiography isn’t one that’s dictated from above but rather one that is of, by and for the people themselves, one that emerges from a discourse among the citizenry, the result of which would be, of course, that it would be much more deeply rooted in the collective memory. This is why we’re coming forward now to again raise these issues and restart the discussion of them.
Matters having to do with government surveillance, state repression and, in some cases, state censorship and the private sphere are hot now and are being played up in the media—there’s been a lot of coverage of PRISM, Snowden, as well as Angela Merkel and how she’s dealt with these things that have come to light. How do you see this situation?
In my view, citizens are being deprived of their rights. Citizens’ fundamental rights to dignity, to privacy, to control over their own data and, ultimately, their right to self-determination are being hollowed out by means of bilateral treaties and bilateral relationships between intelligence agencies. States acting in the name of the war on terror have been instituting measures that are actually unlawful and beyond the power of a state. Actually, I’m in favor of filing a class-action suit against the undermining of civil rights. I regard this as a very real attack on human dignity. In my view, the relationship of the citizen to the state and, conversely, that of the state to the citizen, has to be renegotiated.
What “We Are Here” wants is to create different sorts of intellectual and physical stimuli. So, “We Are Here” isn’t just a discourse; it’s a performance on the emotional level using artistic means. It’s an attempt to come up with various approaches to this complex of issues.
Now, you’re by no means a novice when it comes to dealing with the media. Once at Ars Electronica, you caused quite a commotion with Van Gogh TV piazza virtuale. When you look back on your own history or what’s been going on in recent years—how would you characterize the current generation as far a media competence is concerned or their dealings with images, their own and those of others? Is this proceeding in a direction that you would have wished? Is there a lot to do? Where do we stand?
The way I see it, a lot has happened. People have had to deal with a lot of stuff, and they’ve accepted quite a lot, above all in comparison to the ‘80s and the early ‘90s, when many people had serious reservations about these new technologies, there were major concerns. What emerged with the proclamation of the so-called digital lifestyle was that people started dealing with applications and devices they had never used before. I would describe this as the beginning of a new culture of communication. Whether people today deal with these things in a conscious, informed way, whether they’re totally cognizant of the larger context in which all of this is taking place, and what they’re actually doing and what’s actually being done with them by actors in both the private and public sectors—I don’t really believe that very profound awareness of this is all that widespread.
Now, due to the Snowden and WikiLeaks incidents, it’s become easier to get people to consider these issues. In the press, opinion leaders who ought to be assuming responsibility for informing society about these developments have been adopting a critical stance, but this form of critical thinking has yet to make much of an impact on the general public. And this is why I hope that “We Are Here” is able to attract some attention. Because I simply refuse to accept that Homo Digitalis is completely mature, is equipped with all the necessary insights, and is acting in a reasonable manner. Of course, there are the experts, the avant-garde. The big difference is that, in the past, a spearhead made up of the avant-garde, artists and scientists confronted some issue. Nowadays, the general public has to deal with situations that are simply thrust upon them and they have to be able to come to terms with this in everyday life. If you make the effort to look at this from a broader perspective, then you get the feeling that people are increasingly deformed. It’s fascinating to see how many people today stare at monitor screens, the tremendous extent to which this disrupts everyday social life and mixes it up. These are the major changes.
“We Are Here” will already be active prior to September 5th. What’s going on during the time leading up to the Festival?
“We Are Here” emphasizes participation. To this end, we launched an online portal on July 5th with applications people can take part in. For one thing, participants can recite and record a poem by Bert Brecht; this will be our user-generated chorus that will be a part of the performance. We’ve also issued a call for people to submit sounds and sound fragments that can be integrated into the performance. The music is being created by FM Einheit, who has opened up his composition to the general public and made it possible for people’s own sounds and their own interpretations to become part of the work.
We’re also working on position papers on subjects such as surveillance and censorship. These articles will also treat such questions as: “What is freedom?”; “What phase of democracy are we in today?”; “What does it mean when a nation-state disintegrates?” What would be a desirable scenario for the future to enable people to have more of a say in how the democratic system functions? This portal is also designed to facilitate discussions about the whole festival theme, which can then also shift into social media sites and back to the portal again. We’re hoping for a wide-ranging and profound discussion of these issues as a way of getting people prepared for the opening and looking forward to it.
We are here is building a user-generated choir. Become part of it, become part of the performance!
FM Einheit is one of the first who has taken objects of everyday life to create sound and soundscapes with them, building the foundation what was to become the wide genre of Industrial, influencing thousands of musicians and bands (Depeche Mode anyone). He’s in charge of the of the soundtrack of “We are here” and is looking forward to your submissions. Any noise, sound, bleep or whatever is welcome and might be used in the final composition. Use the links below to submit!